By Neil King
Unraveling the many and varied banking products within the UAE is no easy task. Talal Bayaa of product comparison website Bayzat explains how his e-start-up is helping to make the banking landscape more transparent
Not to put too fine a point on it, banks across the world are not renowned for their transparency.
Small print, hidden costs, lack of information, misleading interest rates and other frustrating issues have left customers feeling varying degrees of disappointment, anger, suspicion and confusion as they try to find clarity before making important financial and life decisions.
Websites overseas, such as moneysupermarket.com in the UK, and bankrate.com in the US have become consumer mainstays, helping people find the best, cheapest, most appropriate offerings on the market, paving the way for expat-driven businesses to be launched in the UAE and Gulf region, such as souqalmal.com, moneyshop.ae, moneycamel.com, and compareit4me.com.
But, until recently, there wasn’t a website focused solely on the banks. In 2013 Bayzat.com arrived to fill that gap.
Meaning ‘cash’ or ‘change’ in Arabic, Bayzat allows users to compare and contrast banking products, from credit cards and loans to time deposits and insurance - the latter a recent addition which includes details from a huge number of insurance companies.
The company was founded by Californian-Palestinian Talal Bayaa, who spent two years working at a private equity firm, followed by two years at an investment bank - a job which led to the idea of Bayzat.
Explaining that plans for the business were driven by clients’ constant queries about where to put their money, Bayaa says a rudimentary examination of the marketplace showed the need for such a platform.
He says: “There are about 50 banks in the UAE, with a population of more than 9m - it’s a huge number. But there’s nothing online aggregating their information.
“You have to go to various sites, try to contact banks directly, and so on. It’s a very fractured and frustrating process, and a big barrier for the region.”
With the lightbulb of inspiration lit, Bayaa and his co-founder Brian Habibi set about the task of putting together a go-to service for customers to find clear, comprehensive answers to all their banking questions.
The duo initially funded the project themselves - something Bayaa felt was vitally important, as “a lot of successful entrepreneurs have huge companies, but such little equity” - and were quickly able to prove the concept.
Putting together the content, however, took more time.
The website includes details of hundreds of banking products from at least 27 banking institutions, so finding all the information - and keeping them up to date - was a labour of love.
“We knew the number one thing for us was to give the best user experience, so we had to have good quality data,” says Bayaa.
“People at banks are generally very busy and don’t want to help too much, so it was really up to us to do the ground work. We had a team of people to find all the data, and still do - we need to be up to date with everything, so it’s an important we keep on top of things.
“We have to be the authority in the region, so we try to be comprehensive. We have 15-20 data points for credit cards, for example. We do as much as we can to make the user experience as good as possible.”
One thing about which Bayaa is adamant is the classification of Bayzat.
“We don’t want to be identified as a price comparison website,” he says.
“We have a really sophisticated system, and we can filter applications which then go to the bank. We can tell you if you’re likely to be approved for a product or not. Rather than applying through a bank and waiting for them to tell you if you’re accepted or not. We can do it straight away.
“We’ve also got a service where users can come and ask us anything about banks or their services. Some people don’t know why they can’t apply for certain things, or have complaints - we can help prove understanding. We’re in touch with banks’ customer service executives, so we can pass information to them and from them.
“It’s much more than just comparing prices.”
He is quick to note, however, that the company doesn’t provide financial advice, explaining that they are not regulated to do so.
Another aspect Bayaa is keen to emphasise is trust. Not only the trust his company needs from customers, but also from the banks it deals with.
“Coming as a young company it took a while for us to build trust with the banks. It was a time consuming process following them and getting them to talk with us.
“When we launched we had five banks. It was completely free at that point but we wanted them to give us feedback, and we wanted to show them what we could do. It ran that was for almost ten months and built trust with them. Now they are very open with us.”
Having worked in the financial and banking environments, Bayaa has the knack of understanding the issues which exist on both sides of the table - for the customer and the bank itself.
Add to that the fact that he’s now the founder of an SME, and can see the difficulties facing new and growing business to, and he has a comprehensive view of the sector and how he can help.
He says: “We could see the gap in the maker, and could see where the opportunities were. People need information desperately, and banks need to attract more people. For SMEs there’s not enough information out there either, even though banks are trying to grow their offerings and are showing more interest in the sector too.
“There are plenty of ways to bring it all together.
“This is a very different market to other parts of the world. It’s 80 percent expat, so there’s a lot of risk for banks. If there’s a problem, people can just hop on a plan and leave to go back to their home country. So the credit market isn’t like other places.
“SMEs can’t easily take loans from banks with interest rates, and so on, and banks can’t easily reduce their risk. It’s a difficult balance to strike between the risk banks are taking and the price companies are paying, but it’s a balance that has to be found.”
Bayaa believes lending will increase soon, adding that it’s a process which will experience growing pain, but will lead to risk being prices much more attractively for businesses.
But he stresses that an important aspect of the evolution of the banking system needs to be education.
“People need to know what they’re looking at, whether it’s a monthly rate, annual rate or flat rate, what the difference is overall, what that means for your affordability, and so on.
“There’s a lot of misleading information out there, so people need to learn what’s what in order to not make mistakes or be taken advantage of.
“It’s a problem that sales people are often trying to make a sale rather than advising a customer in their best interests. We try to give people the facts and help them learn, and I hope that will start to change things.”
Leaving an established business and starting out as an entrepreneur, however, hasn’t proved a bed of roses for Bayaa, despite the popularity of Bayzat.
“As an entrepreneur you definitely end up working harder,” he says.
“Actually, a good piece of advice I would give is I would say is ‘find good co-founder’ – it really pushes you if you feel accountable to somebody. It can be very easy if in full time job to put feet up and rest at the end of the day when you’re in another full time job. We were both working on Bayzat nights and weekends, so we had to be disciplined.
“Luckily for us I think we did it in the right way though. We had a team in place before going full time, so there wasn’t such a huge pressure on us in the beginning.”
Even putting together the team, however, provided a challenge for Bayzat
“It wasn’t easy to find the right people for the job though - it took us six months to find somebody we really liked for one of the positions.
“There is a bit of a talent shortage in the UAE, which is a big problem for some companies. We’re on a constant search to find the best people, but so is everybody else. A lot of businesses need to look further afield to find the right people. For us, we need a mixture of talent and local knowledge, so we are looking for a specific type of person.
“That’s important for this kind of industry. I’ve been here a long time, so I know it well. But somebody coming form the west - however excellent they are at what they do - might have no idea about the banks here and how they work. So it just wouldn’t be right for us.
“We’ve made good progress in recruitment now though, so we’re happy with that.”
Already proving a popular model, Bayaa believes Bayzat has only just starting to realise its potential in terms of its services.
Indeed, he suggests regional expansion has been reined in in order for the company to ensure it has covered as much ground as possible in the UAE.
“If you’d have asked me eight months ago whether I wanted to go into new markets, I would have said that we’d be in those markets by now. But we are finding so many opportunities in the UAE that we want to focus on that right now.
“Of course in the future we do want to expand and scale, and we will do it, but there’s so much to do here first.”
Above all, he explains, is the importance of making life easier for the user. And as a parting comment, he sounds a strong note of positivity.
“We’re trying to educate people as to what it all means, and I think it’s working. I think things will change in favour of the customer in good time - I hope so, anyway.
“All it takes is one bank to come to the market and say they will offer something more customer friendly, and things will really start to change.
“We’re heading in the right direction.”